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Is Deep-Sea Mining Really Necessary?

A conversation with Deep Rising filmmaker Matthieu Rytz about the promise and the peril of mining the ocean floor.

A hand reaching into deep water.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

“To say, ‘Don’t harm the ocean’ — it is the easiest message in the world, right? You just have to show a photo of a turtle with a straw in its nose,” Michael Lodge, the secretary general of the U.N.’s International Seabed Authority, toldThe New York Times last year. “Everybody in Brooklyn can then say, ‘I don’t want to harm the ocean.’ But they sure want their Teslas.”

Canadian filmmaker Matthieu Rytz apparently didn’t get the memo. Deep Rising, his new documentary narrated by Jason Momoa, aims at one of the great contradictions of the energy transition: that deep-sea mining could provide a wealth of copper, nickel, and cobalt, the battery materials that are critically needed for EVs and clean-energy storage — and could also trigger ecological collapse in the fragile Pacific Ocean abyss.

At the center of this debate is the International Seabed Authority, a Jamaica-based U.N. organization tasked with the conflicting goals of protecting the ocean floor and writing regulations for the extraction of “polymetallic nodules.” The metal-rich nodules are sprinkled across an internationally governed part of the Pacific called the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, which starts about 500 miles south of Hawaii and by some measurements stretches roughly twice the size of India. By the estimate of The Metals Company, which has a multi-billion-dollar stake in an eventual mining operation, the supply of nodules would be enough to eventually power “280 million electric vehicles.”

At the same time, scientists — including a whistleblower from inside The Metals Company’s own exploratory team — have stressed that we know almost nothing about the deep ocean, least of all how a large-scale mining operation could impact everything from regional biodiversity to the potential extinction of undiscovered animals to ocean carbon sequestration. The nodules alone take millions of years to form.

On Monday, the International Seabed Authority kicked off a two-week-long meeting to discuss potentially issuing the first commercial mining permits. It’s already met staunch opposition: The United Kingdom just came out as the latest nation to demand a moratorium on deep-sea mining, joining calls for a total ban issued by France, Germany, New Zealand, and at least 13 other countries. (The U.S. is not a part of the International Seabed Authority because it was one of only four countries that declined to formally ratify the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1984, thanks to Republican opposition. China, Norway, and Russia are the major proponents pushing for deep-sea mining to open up).

With this as our backdrop, I spoke to Rytz about the making of Deep Rising and the complexities of the deep-sea mining debate. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell me a little bit about how you discovered this story. As the narration points out, deep-sea mining is “out of sight and out of mind” for most people.

I discovered it in 2018 when I was finishing my previous film [Anote’s Ark], and working with the president of Kiribati in the middle of the Pacific. Because of the work I was doing, I had privileged access, since the president was the main character of my film. I started hearing the conversation about deep-sea mining when basically nothing was in the media; it was an absolute unknown story. It really intrigued me. I was like, Wow, this is a very interesting, complex story. I jumped on it and went on the long journey till now.

The U.N.’s International Seabed Authority begins a nearly two-week-long meetingthis week that will potentially end with the issuing of the first provisional licenses for deep-sea mining. What has it been like to follow these developments while you’re in the final stages of releasing and promoting this film?

Once the mining code — if the mining code — is ratified, it will be extremely hard to change it. It’s not like in government when you have political football between two parties. Once the regulation is in place, it might take the same amount of time just to make an amendment because you need to get a consensus of all the U.N. members. So it’s a critical time now because they’re actually drafting it and if it passes, the text will define how deep-sea mining will go.

There’s still a chance, actually, to block it or to postpone it. There has been a big wave of countries signing a moratorium and there was very big news yesterday, from the U.K., which is supporting the moratorium. We’ve seen some smaller states sign it; France was a big one, but the U.K. is a significant gain in the movement for a moratorium.

But for me — and this is the story of Deep Rising as well — I’m like, well, okay, sure, let’s say deep-sea mining is stopped by a ban or a moratorium or simply because the mining code doesn’t happen. That doesn’t stop the need for nickel. And that, for me, is the biggest conversation, because if deep-sea mining doesn’t go ahead, it will mean way more pristine ecosystems are torn down in tropical rainforests — mainly in Indonesia, but also New Caledonia, the Philippines, Madagascar, a lot of places. In northern Russia, they’re mining nickel in the tundra and they’re releasing massive amounts of methane.

So for me, it’s not one or the other. Deep-sea mining is better because we’re going to save the rainforest is a fundamentally flawed argument. Because we don’t need nickel in the first place; there are solutions that are not based on finite resources. There’s battery chemistry that is based on iron-phosphate batteries. Green hydrogen is another very good example and a very good debate.

And, you know, we don’t need to buy that many private cars; we need to develop and share resources. When you see the climate bill from President Biden subsidizing every citizen to buy an EV, it’s basically subsidizing removing the pristine ecosystem in Indonesia. I don’t call that a climate plan.

I wanted to ask you about that. The script of Deep Rising can be pretty critical of the energy transition, calling it the “so-called green revolution.” Can you tell me a little about the use of that term, “so-called”?

This is exactly what I mean. You take the narrative of the “green revolution” from the official perspective — the president’s perspective or the industry’s perspective, from President Biden or Elon Musk. Let’s say they have the same narrative: Buy a Tesla and you’re going to save the planet. Because Tesla would not exist without subsidies; every taxpayer in the U.S. has spent massive amounts of money to make it happen. And I’m not against EVs, but it’s important to understand the climate has no boundaries. If you remove the ecosystem in Indonesia, you’re increasing the climate crisis in the U.S., and so on. You’re putting your citizens at risk. Every country is similar.

There’s no reason to go after finite resources like nickel. Again, if there was no solution, it’d maybe be like, “Oh, there’s a trade-off.” But the point is, at a very large, industrial scale, there are solutions to produce energy without extracting finite resources.

In the film, the narration states that “critical metals are not the solution; they are the new oil.” I’m convinced that there could be grave ecological consequences to deep-sea mining, but how do you reconcile that against the grave ecological consequences of the fossil fuels we’re extracting and burning now?

Again, it’s a matter of changing the chemistry of the batteries. If you take the composition of the Earth’s crust, nickel is 0.009%. Iron is 5%. Iron is everywhere. A company like BYD in China, they’ve been very successfully building for like five years now EVs that are as good as Tesla’s with no gram of nickel, no gram of cobalt. Iron and phosphate are widely available. Rivian, in the U.S., they’re also shifting. And that can happen — anytime soon, GM or Ford or Toyota could change their battery chemistry.

Wait — if this is something we have the technology for now, and it’s scaleable, why are mining companies spending all this time and money building deep-sea vacuum cleaners to suck up nodules to power batteries that we don’t even need to be using?

Because there’s a whole supply chain that’s already been built. And when you’re investing billions of dollars to build battery factories, you need to sell enough batteries to recoup your investment. The problem is we made the investment in the wrong direction.

The second problem is political. The EU could ban nickel in the battery and that’d be it. Then Volkswagen and Volvo and BMW and Renault, all the German and French carmakers, would have no choice. I don’t think it’s as easy in the U.S. but in the EU, that’s a move they could do. It’s happening: The U.K. did a moratorium [on deep-sea mining]. France did a total ban. And, of course, some will lose a lot of money, but it’s the right thing to do.

And the Chinese, by the way — most of the domestic market doesn’t use cobalt and nickel. They’re very advanced; the Blade technology from BYD is years ahead. But they’re not exporting that much because of the commercial war, basically.

On your website, you have a manifesto, which states that your aim as a filmmaker is to “ask uncomfortable questions instead of providing reassuring answers.” Can you talk a little about how that philosophy guided your approach to this film in particular?

My background is not in filmmaking; it’s in anthropology. I think because of my upbringing as an intellectual, I can see a system’s complexity. Filmmakers can sometimes cut straight to a conclusion and for me, it’s very challenging because I needed to simplify when making a film. I think I’ve oversimplified already; I see the film and I think “Oh, this is so oversimplified!” even when it’s a very complex film for most of the viewers.

I could have done a film that was just bashing the mining industry, showing how bad they are and how bad capitalists are destroying the planet. The problem with this is, you preach to the choir. The people you actually need to talk to, they will not listen.

Instead, I got invited to speak to the finance sector, the mining sector, a few weeks ago at a big conference in Geneva. Some of the biggest hedge funds and banks — a Swiss bank, a European bank, a Singaporean bank — they were all in the room. They were asking me for advice about if they should have deep-sea mining in their portfolio. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars. And I was like, “I can explain to you why you shouldn’t.”

The change is massive when you can tap into the higher side, the financial system, basically. For me, it’s a really interesting goal, because I take this approach so it’s like, “Oh, you’re not just bashing us and saying how bad we are. Let’s set aside our differences and sit down for coffee.”

I wanted to ask about the disagreement within the Pacific Islands communities. On the one hand, you show grassroots resistance to deep-sea mining in Papua New Guinea; on the other, you also show a delegate from Nauru (which sponsors a subsidiary of The Metals Company) pressuring the International Seabed Authority to make a quick decision on commercial licensing. Is the jury still out on deep-sea mining when it comes to regional community support?

There are two forces here. One is that no corporation can apply for a deep-sea mining license. The Metal Company cannot go to Jamaica and say, “I want to mine the deep ocean.” You need to find a country that will sponsor you. So the Metal Company can fly into Nauru, the smallest country in the world, and promise them the moon. Nauru is a very specific story with a long history of extraction with the Commonwealth, with Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. They’ve been mining phosphate since the Second World War. So this is a very specific case.

When it comes to other countries, like Kiribati and a lot of other island nations, they’re kind of under the Chinese now. And there’s a lot of paradox with China because again, the domestic market is very different than the exporting markets. They’re fueling the rest of the world with nickel, so they have six licenses [in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone] and they’re lobbying quite hard now to get deep-sea mining approved. But they own 60% of the nickel capacities globally and the U.S. has 0%. So for the Chinese, they’d still get all this nickel to basically keep the rest of the world dependent on them.

I have to ask about the cinematography, which is absolutely gorgeous. I think a lot of times deep sea animals don’t get the respect of more charismatic environmental icons like polar bears or whales because they look so alien and creepy. But the footage you included really gives this part of the world vibrance, life, and personality.

It came from years and years of digging through hard drives. A lot of the footage comes from scientific expeditions. It was a very long process for me to convince the researchers to give me the license to use their footage, too, because their first reaction was like, “No, it’s scientific material; that specific jellyfish, which is undiscovered, is under embargo.” Which means the scientists haven’t published their paper yet. And I was like, “Guys.”

Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

The concept of the common heritage of humankind is very important. It’s outlined in the Law of the Sea, a set of strong rules by the U.N., that the deep sea belongs to humanity. And every citizen of the planet has a shared responsibility to really look at what is happening because it’s the biggest land grab in human history. The mining area is the size of Mongolia. It’s enormous: I mean, imagine if Mongolia, which is an entire country, was mined entirely. It doesn’t make sense. We have a shared responsibility because we know the climate crisis doesn’t have boundaries. Everyone is concerned.


Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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